Fearlessness as a Sign of Destruction and Salvation
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in [the cause of] Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter [do it] out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but [that] with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if [I am] to live [on] in the flesh, this [will mean] fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both [directions], having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for [that] is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by [your] opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that [too], from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear [to be] in me.
Five Reasons for a New Sermon Series
There are at least five reasons why I believe God is leading us into a new series of messages that focus on God-centered courage and boldness and fearlessness and risk-taking for Christ and his kingdom.
1. The Need to Stress Some Crucial Themes of Ministry
One is that some of the crucial earlier themes of our ministry have not been stressed for a long time. For example, a lot of what we are as a church today was built on the biblical teaching of a radical, God-centered, wartime, risk-taking life-style. The sort of life that's captured in biblical sentences like:
- "He who loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
- "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain."
- "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."
- "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."
- "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."
- "Sell your possessions and give alms."
- "Where your treasure is there will your heart be also."
- "Whatever you would that people do to you, do so to them."
- "Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you."
- "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind."
- "Do not fear those who kill the body and after that have nothing that they can do."
- "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?"
Some of us sense the need again to lift this banner of radical, risk-taking, God-centered, courageous, wartime living so that there is no mistaking: that's what God calls us to be.
2. The Need to Stir One Another Up to Take Risks
There is the growing sense in some of us that we need to stir each other up to take some risks in more venturesome acts of love, especially in evangelism "for the sake of the name." We need to break out of deeply-ingrained habits of timidity and silence and fear. We need to be set free from long-established anxieties of ruffling feathers and offending secular pluralists and being slandered. We need to be freed to speak the truth in love without looking over our shoulder at the snickering or ridicule that follows. This fits with some of the new things we are planning for fresh opportunities of outreach.
3. The Growing Sense of Hostility Against the Church
There is the growing sense in many of us that the winds are blowing ill for the comforts of Christians in America. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the purity and power of the church. But we need to be ready for the trouble and disapproval and danger when it comes. 1 Peter 4:12 says, "Beloved do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you as though something strange were happening to you." It isn't strange. It is strange how long we have been able to live without it.
4. The Increasing Riskiness of Addressing Important Issues
There is also the rising sense that taking a loving, biblical stand on some of the front burner issues of our time (e.g., abortion and homosexual behavior) will be increasingly risky business and may bring down actual physical hostility and not just verbal.
5. Courage and Boldness at the Heart of Christianity
Finally, as I have taught this great book of Philippians on Wednesday evenings, the conviction has gripped me that courage is at the center of what it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Boldness in the face of opposition is at the heart of being a Christian. It is not an upper level spirituality for super saints. It is the meat and potatoes of daily Christian living. I saw this in today's text and I want to show it to you.
Christian Courage and David Koresh
But first I want to relate our theme of courage and boldness and kingdom risk-taking to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Tom Steller and I were talking earlier this week about this new series of messages, and he raised the question of how people might hear a call to radical, risking-taking courage in view of the apparent willingness of the whole Davidian compound to die for their cause.
My response is this: One of the greatest threats to Christian courage in our day is the fear that it will be labeled with derisive names and associations. One of the greatest fears in America today (in the church and out of it) is the fear that we will be classed with certain fringe groups: racist, sexist, homophobic, right-wing, fundamentalist, extremist, fanatic. Now, I dislike all those terms and don't want those labels. I would like to avoid being called those things.
But therein lies a danger. What a tragedy when the great fear is not that we will dishonor the Lord by departing from his truth and righteousness, but that we will be accused, labeled, slandered with words that are spring-loaded to destroy. The crucial question is not: 'can group call you bad names,' but 'did you speak the truth in love?' There is no correlation between those two.
So the greatest danger for Christians in response to the Branch Davidian tragedy is not that we will be swept away by another messianic pretender, and kill ourselves for the sake of a false Christ. The greater danger is that we will be so afraid of being labeled as apocalyptic fanatics that we may abandon any truth or any action that might be interpreted by the world as falling into that category—or any other widely disliked category.
How Gamaliel Assessed the Early Christians
This is not a new problem. Let me read for you a similar situation from history. Acts 5:35–41. The officials in Jerusalem had given the apostles strict orders not to teach in Jesus' name (v. 28). They responded with radical, God-centered, courageous, risk-taking words: "We must obey God rather than men." And they proceeded to tell their accusers, who have the authority to put them to death, "You put Jesus to death, but God raised him up" (v. 30).
When the council was about to kill the apostles out of rage, a Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up and did something that must have stung the apostles, when they heard about it, worse than the anger of the council—Gamaliel said, they are just another bunch of Branch Davidians following a phony David Koresh. So leave them alone and they will self-destruct. Here is the way he put it.
And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas [read: Jim Jones] rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. And he was slain; and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man Judas of Galilee [read: David Koresh] rose up in the days of the census, and drew away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." And they took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name. (Acts 5:35–41)
Now that is radical, God-centered, risk-taking, courageous living—rejoicing that they are worthy of shame, worthy of flogging. What do we feel that comes close to such rejoicing?
But note well: part of the shame was that they were treated with a patronizing disdain—Oh, this is just another Theudas group; this is just another Judas of Galilee and his deluded followers—just another Jim Jones and David Koresh. When the apostles heard about it, that was perhaps the worst shame of all.
Will You Be Able to Rejoice at Being Thusly Shamed?
We all dream now and then of suffering for righteousness' sake. We dream of suffering nobly—even heroically—for Jesus' sake. But what will you feel when the authorities and the crowds and the media distort your cause and tell the whole world not that you are a noble person with courage suffering for righteousness but that you are a deluded, extremist fanatic? In following Jesus you are following just another Theudas, just another Judas of Galilee, just another David Koresh.
Will you be able to rejoice with the apostles that you were shamed in this way—that you were misunderstood and misinterpreted and slandered?. Will you be so secure in God and so confident in his truth that you will rejoice? Or will you grovel and scrape with fear lest you be classed with the followers of Theudas.
That, I think, is the greatest danger at this moment in response to the Waco conflagration.
Courage in Christ Is at the Heart of Christian Living
Now I gave as my fifth reason for this series of messages that studying Philippians has convinced me that courage in Christ is at the heart of Christian living—not at the periphery. It's essential not optional.
What It Means to Live Worthy of the Gospel
Let me show you that very briefly. Philippians 1:27–28 describes what it means to live worthy of the gospel:
Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed [or frightened] by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
In his recent 600 page commentary on this little book of Philippians, Peter O'Brien titles the paragraph of 1:27–30, "Unity and Courage in the Face of Opposition." I think that's exactly right. There are two things that Paul highlights as worthy of the gospel:
- "standing firm in one spirit and striving together for
the faith" (unity), and
- "in no way alarmed [or frightened] by your opponents" (courage).
Christianity means living worthy of the gospel (v. 27). Christianity is a way of living, not just a way of thinking or believing. But the order is very crucial. First comes the gospel, then comes the living.
First Gospel, Then Living
First we meet Christ in the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to die for our sins and rose again to give us eternal life, and that he offers forgiveness and everlasting joy to all who bank their hopes on him and not on the promises of the world.
Then comes a way of life that is worthy or fitting or appropriate for that great truth—a way of life that shows we are really banking our hope on the gospel and not on the world. When Paul says in verse 21, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain," he was simply showing what it means to live worthy of the gospel. If the gospel is true, and if we put our hope in its promises, then to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Unity and Fearlessness
Which is why Paul defines living worthy of the gospel as living in unity with each other and living in fearlessness toward opponents. Living worthy of the gospel means that "to live is Christ"—and so he becomes the center of our life and our unity; living worthy of the gospel means that "to die is gain"—and that promise takes away our opponents' last weapon (death) and takes away our last fear.
Unified striving together for the gospel and fearlessness before our opponents are the two ways that Paul says are at the heart of living worthy of the gospel.
And since they show the worth of the gospel so powerfully, Paul calls them in v. 28b a sign from God. When we live in unity and when we stand courageously and unafraid and humbly and lovingly before our opponents, this is a sign that the gospel is indeed true and that therefore those who believe it are saved and those who don't believe it are perishing.
The Most Important Reason for This Series
So there are many reasons for a series like this. But perhaps the most important one is that we are called to live worthy of the gospel. We are called to live in a way that shows the worth and value of the gospel—that we prize the gospel more than anything in the world. We are called to show that our treasure is not in this world, our hope is not in money and earthly security, our satisfaction is not in power and prestige, our contentment is not in the approval of other people, our happiness is not in avoiding criticism and slander.
Instead, our treasure and hope and satisfaction and contentment and happiness are in Christ and his promises: to live is Christ and to die is gain. Unity in Christ and fearlessness before our opponents make the worth of the gospel clear. So the call to courage in these messages is a call to magnify the worth of the gospel and glorify the all-satisfying value of Christ.